Donovan’s Reef (1963)

Directed by John Ford

Donovan's Reef posterThis is a difficult film to defend, much less recommend, for many reasons, most of which have to do with director John Ford. Still, if I may refer to Glenn Erickson who, in his review, refers to Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, “…Donovan’s Reef was like some kind of heaven that Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valance, both fun-loving uncivilized types, had retreated to in the afterlife. And it’s the key to appreciating this broad comedy.”

In other words, Donovan’s Reef is fantasy. It also recapitulates many of the themes and sentiments that characterize the John Ford canon. You could call it a kind of executive summary. Unfortunately, many of those themes and sentiments are more than a little disagreeable, even offensive, to a modern sensibility, like the racial and gender characterizations.

Compounding that is the structure and style of the film which is somewhat clunky. I think Erickson describes it pretty well when he writes that it is, “…a surreal, almost abstract progression of kabuki-like rituals from the world of John Ford.”

Lee Marvin and John Wayne (from Donovan's Reef)The movie comes across as a collection of set pieces that are only loosely tied together. It’s almost episodic. These set pieces, however, are like a highlighting of key aspects of Ford’s work – again, almost like an executive summary. Many of these conclude with brawls – many of them seem to be excuses for brawl scenes – fights that involve almost everyone and where no one gets hurt.

It’s all set in an idyllic, mythical South Seas world called Haleakaloa. It stars John Wayne and Lee Marvin as two brawling pals who like drinking and fighting, and being their own men. There is a romance that reiterates Ford’s vision of relationships between men – antagonistic, but in a charming way.

But is it a good movie? I would have to say no even though I did enjoy it. Despite the similarity to North to Alaska, the film it most reminds me of is Hatari! That movie, directed by Howard Hawks, is long and meandering. It seems to be more about spending time with the characters. This how Donovan’s Reef strikes me. The story is flimsy at best. The movie is more about spending time with Wayne, Marvin and, in behind the scenes, Ford in a fantasy paradise. It’s almost like sitting around with old friends and having a few beers.

This is why I can enjoy the movie. If you’re familiar with Ford/Wayne movies, if you grew up with them and liked them, you can enjoy the movie, though you couldn’t credibly argue for it being a “good” movie. At least, I don’t think so.

Scene from Donovan's ReefAnd if you didn’t grow up with these guys, if you’re unfamiliar with the sensibility and are unwilling to turn a blind eye to some of the stereotyping and so on (rather like sitting down with a politically incorrect grandfather who, smiling, unthinkingly throws out inappropriate remarks) … No, you won’t like this movie.

But then, the movie was never made for you. It’s more like a greeting card sent to old friends from Ford, full of the John Ford “stuff,” from the characters to the scenes.

1½ stars out of 4.

4 Responses to Donovan’s Reef (1963)

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